Reading, Short And Deep #395
Eric S. Rabkin and Jesse Willis discuss A Literary Nightmare by Mark Twain
Here’s a link to a PDF of the story.
A Literary Nightmare was published in Atlantic Monthly, February 1876.
Boy: Tales of Childhood
By Roald Dahl; Read by Dan Stevens
[UNABRIDGED] – 3 hours, 11 minutes
Where did Roald Dahl get all of his wonderful ideas for stories?
From his own life, of course! As full of excitement and the unexpected as his world-famous, best-selling books, Roald Dahl’s tales of his own childhood are completely fascinating and fiendishly funny. Did you know that Roald Dahl nearly lost his nose in a car accident? Or that he was once a chocolate candy tester for Cadbury’s? Have you heard about his involvement in the Great Mouse Plot of 1924? If not, you don’t yet know all there is to know about Roald Dahl. Sure to captivate and delight you, the boyhood antics of this master storyteller are not to be missed!
At the start of his book, Roald Dahl says, “An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life, and it usually filled with all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography.”
Rather than a straight autobiography, it’s a short collection of some of his most powerful memories of childhood – the good, the scary, the hilarious and mischievous — all revealed with his amazing ability to paint a scene with the most evocative details and to find humor in even the worst situations.
Roald Dahl knows just the right details to capture your imagination and take you back to that feeling of being a kid, when the world is magical and mysterious and kinda gross, and Dan Stevens does a great job of narrating these tales with an engaging, slightly amused tone. Even readers who don’t know Roald Dahl’s books (they do exist: I know one!) would probably enjoy this book just for the trip back to a child’s perspective.
For fans, though, the collection is even more special, because it’s like taking a tour through Roald Dahl’s mind. Although Dahl rarely mentions it, if you know his work you’ll see the inspirations for his later stories and characters all through these anecdotes.
The most obvious one is in his near-religious awe of the candy shop. It promises so much and is so filled with delights, but the woman who works there is frightening and Roald Dahl in his friends come up with all kinds of conspiracy theories about the seeming-magic of some of the candy: for example, they are convinced the licorice shoelaces are made of rat’s blood, and the ‘tonsil ticklers’ candies are saturated with anesthetic to subdue children.
Then there is Mr. Cadbury, who regularly sent Roald Dahl’s family boxes of unidentified new flavors chocolates to taste-test. It’s not hard to see the seeds for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when you hear Roald Dahl’s childhood revelation that, somewhere, there are people working away in inventing rooms to come up with new and amazing flavors of chocolate.
Along with all the more colorful and whimsical stuff are the darker stories of his boyhood, like having doctors turn up with their surgical bags and chloroform to operate right there in the living room, and many awful dealings with bullies of all sizes – but even the most horrid character becomes someone to delight in because of Roald Dahl’s cheerful wit and playful descriptive detail. You’re right there with him when the sheer force of the “foul and beastly” matron’s voice causes that “massive bosom of hers to quiver like a blancmange.”
Posted by Marissa van Uden
Themes: / neighbors / twitter / apartments / memoir / humor /
When Charlie McDowell began sharing his open letters to his noisy upstairs neighbors—two impossibly ditzy female roommates in their mid-twenties—on Twitter, his feed quickly went viral. His followers multiplied and he got the attention of everyone from celebrities to production studios to major media outlets such as Time and Glamour. Now Dear Girls breaks out of the 140-character limit as Charlie imagines what would happen if he put the wisdom of the girls to the test.
After being unceremoniously dumped by the girl he was certain was “the one,” Charlie realized his neighbors’ conversations were not only amusing, but also offered him access to a completely uncensored woman’s perspective on the world. From the importance of effectively Facebook-stalking potential girlfriends and effortlessly pulling off pastel, to learning when in the early stages of dating is too presumptuous to bring a condom and how to turn food poisoning into a dieting advantage, the girls get Charlie into trouble, but they also get him out of it—without ever having a clue of their impact on him.
I admit that I procrastinated for a while over writing this review. Not because I didn’t like the book, which I did in a weird way, but more because I’m not quite sure what I thought of it. I found out about the Dear Girls Above Me Twitter meme some time ago and I was always amused by the dry-witted observations of the author’s upstairs neighbors, two 20-something girls who say really stupid things.
“Dear Girls Above Me, ‘Like why isn’t the 4th of July on the 2nd of July? Who makes up when these holidays are gonna be anyway?’ Will Smith.”
“Dear GAM, ‘Mom, how are you not hearing me?! I forgot to send dad flowers because THERE’S A NEW KARDASHIAN!’ Happy Father’s Day, Kanye.”
A lot is said in less than 140 characters. Anyone who has ever had to live in close proximity to other people in an apartment complex can certainly relate. Goodness knows I can! This might explain why the meme became popular in the first place.
Does that make for a compelling book? I’m not entirely sure.
I hesitated to try this book because I wondered how on earth the author was going to make a linear and compelling storyline out of the 140-character observations of his upstairs neighbors. The original meme had no linear storyline to begin with and seemed to serve as an outlet for Charlie’s frustrations at how inane his neighbors could be. So how was this going to be turned into a book?
By creating a small bit of a plot.
You have this mid-20-something who lives in Los Angeles with a longtime roommate who may or may not be gay (a constant source of speculation on the part of the author) named Charlie. Charlie and his longtime girlfriend break up. As he is getting over the pain of his breakup, he notices that he has some new upstairs neighbors, two very loud and very bubble-headed early-20 something girls named Cathy and Claire. Charlie can hear them in his apartment but they, for some odd reason, cannot hear him. So he is forced to hear every inane topic of conversation they have and he turns his rage at their loud conversations into Twitter gold. Eventually he gets to know them a little bit more after he goes upstairs to talk to them and gets sucked into a loud party the girls are hosting, and the girls never seem to remember who he is.
The rest of the story meanders through his fledgling love life, such as his trying to reconnect with the former hot girl from his high school graduating class, and his other observations about apartment life (the neighbor who tries to get her dog to have playdates with Charlie’s dog) and his family, since his mother is apparently an Oscar-winning actress, and punctuating his observations with quotes from the girls above him. Each chapter ends with some of Twitter quotes from the girls.
While his observations are written in that dry style that I like, I kept wondering when an actual story was going to come in. The entire book felt more like the stream-of-consciousness journal of a 20-something guy and I felt myself tuning out sometimes as he went on and on about trying to look on Facebook for the former hot girl he crushed on in high school or having to see as a thirteen-year-old his best friend become aroused at seeing his partially naked mother on a late night movie channel.
I prefer books that have a clear plot to them that leads to a good conclusion and there was nothing like that in this book. There was no story to really drive the book along, so when the end finally did come, it left me feeling more like “wow, that’s it?” It felt so abrupt.
In short, if you enjoy reading rambling books that don’t really have much of a plot to follow, then this would be for you. Do be aware that there is some language and sexual situations, none of which bothered me, but I know some people are sensitive about those things.
As for the audiobook itself, I thoroughly enjoyed the person who read the book. Even if the meanderings of this book left me a little bored at times, I was certainly not bored by the audio reading. I thought that was the best part. Not only did his voice fit the character of the author very well, but also his impressions of Cathy and Claire, the girls who live above Charlie, were hilarious. I found myself cracking up often at hearing his otherwise serious voice speak their dialogue in such a dim-witted Valley Girl voice. It really made the characters in this story come to life.
Review by Cecilee Linke.
By Marc Maron; Read by Marc Maron
Publisher: Random House Audio
5 hours, 34 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Themes: / memoir / comedy / humanity /
People make a mess.
Marc Maron was a parent-scarred, angst-filled, drug-dabbling, love-starved comedian who dreamed of a simple life: a wife, a home, a sitcom to call his own. But instead he woke up one day to find himself fired from his radio job, surrounded by feral cats, and emotionally and financially annihilated by a divorce from a woman he thought he loved. He tried to heal his broken heart through whatever means he could find—minor-league hoarding, Viagra addiction, accidental racial profiling, cat fancying, flying airplanes with his mind—but nothing seemed to work. It was only when he was stripped down to nothing that he found his way back.
Attempting Normal is Marc Maron’s journey through the wilderness of his own mind, a collection of explosively, painfully, addictively funny stories that add up to a moving tale of hope and hopelessness, of failing, flailing, and finding a way. From standup to television to his outrageously popular podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, Marc has always been a genuine original, a disarmingly honest, intensely smart, brutally open comic who finds wisdom in the strangest places. This is his story of the winding, potholed road from madness and obsession and failure to something like normal, the thrillingly comic journey of a sympathetic f***up who’s trying really hard to do better without making a bigger mess. Most of us will relate.
It seems like most people spend all their time cultivating various masks to hide behind, but Marc Maron has made a business out of taking his off, and getting professionals in artistic fields from comedy to film and music to do the same. His trick is to reveal his own flaws and past mistakes and make people feel OK about being human so they can relax and open up too. This is why his WTF podcast is so popular, and why he has such a loyal fan-base, and why his interviews are some of the most interesting out there.
In Attempting Normal, he says that one of the beliefs that shaped his life is that “People want to share but they usually don’t” – because they are afraid they will be judged, or seem weak, or out of fear that others won’t have the capacity to carry the burden of what they have to say. In his book, Maron says, “But all that stuff is what makes us human; more than that, it’s what makes being human interesting and funny. … We’re built to deal with shit. We’re built to deal with death, disease, failure, struggle, heartbreak, problems. … The way we each handle being human is where all the good stories, jokes, art, wisdom, revelations and bullshit come from.”
His book is a collection of autobiographical stories about how he has personally handled being a fallible human. He talks about his mistakes, drug problems, neurotic episodes and failed marriages, and he describes odd encounters with creatures such as hookers, stray cats, comedy road pirates, and Conan O’ Brian. What links all his stories together is that universal story plot: humans, who are really weird, get themselves into shit, deal with it, and climb back out. It’s a book about accepting the darkness and pain, struggling through, and keeping hope. It also has some profound wisdoms: “Bedtime is the worst time to start an argument because all the drama unfolds while you are wearing your underwear. Being angry in your underwear is a hard thing to pull off.”
It’s always awesome to hear people telling their own stories, but Maron’s narration is particularly good as he has beautiful timing and an open, free-flowing style thanks to years of working as a stand-up comic. He also has that hard-edged vulnerability that pro-comedians learn to do so well.
One of the things I appreciate about him, and which comes across heavily in this book, is that he loves the art of comedy not just as a form of entertainment but for its role in society: a way for people and for the culture to release tension. He says comedians are “like all artists, masters of the mathematics of relief.”
I also really dig his empathy for the human condition. He’s a dark character, but he has built up this amazing understanding of humanity that he uses to draw people out in interviews and to reflect on his own experiences. I learned from this book where it comes from: he has an insatiable curiosity for information about human psychology and philosophy, and even though he claims his obsessive collecting of books (from Plato and Spinoza to Hunter S.) is mostly pointless, I think it’s what gives him that ability to see the deeper truths in any situation.
“I can’t read anything with any distance. Every book is a self-help book to me. Just having them makes me feel better. I underline profusely, but I don’t retain much. Reading is like a drug. When I’m reading from these books it feels like I’m thinking what is being read, and that gives me a rush. That is enough. I glean what I can. I finish some of the unfinished thoughts lingering around in my head by adding the thoughts of geniuses, and I build from there.” (Mark Maron)
This isn’t a book about a huge celebrity or particular topic – it’s just an honest and humble conversation about how we’re kinda weird, kinda funny, and in the end only human.
Posted by Marissa van Uden
By Roald Dahl; Narrated by Dan Stevens
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 26 September 2013
[UNABRIDGED] – 4 hours, 38 minutes
Themes: / memoir / World War II / RAF / colonialism / growing up / snakes /
Going Solo is the action-packed tale of Roald Dahl’s exploits as a World War II pilot. Learn all about his encounters with the enemy, his worldwide travels, the life-threatening injuries he sustained in a plane accident, and the rest of his sometimes bizarre, often unnerving, and always colorful adventures. Told with the same irresistible appeal that has made Roald Dahl one of the world’s best-loved writers, Going Solo brings you directly into the action and into the mind of this fascinating man.
Going Solo is the gripping autobiographical follow-up to Roald Dahl’s Boy. Whereas Boy tells the story of Dahl’s childhood, this speaks of his time in Africa before the war began, and relays his participation in the RAF. Whereas Boy was an odd concoction of heartwarming sadness that kept me smiling throughout its duration, Going Solo is less amusing and more riveting as we, through Dahl’s eyes, witnessed death.
Dahl doesn’t squander his words. He draws vivid images with powerful verbs and bright adjectives. His sparing prose paints these vignettes so true that we squint for the dust, smell the oily flames, and feel the wind pressing us back.
Dan Stevens narrates this wonderful production from Penguin Audio. Stevens, as he did in Boy, becomes the voice of Roald Dahl. Both this production and the reading of Dan Stevens are beyond improvement. Thank you Penguin Audio, and thank you Dan Stevens.
I’m left feeling a profound sense of wonder. I was constantly forced to remind myself “this is true,” “this is not fiction.” We really do see an African lion carry off the cook’s wife. We really do see the illogical and stubborn face of war. I could go on and on. I could try to tell you how much this book deserves your attention. I could try and relate all the wondrous encounters with snakes or Dahl’s solitary conversation with giraffes. But at this point, you have a good sense as to whether you will or won’t read this. I hope you do. I hope you start with Boy and continue with Going Solo.
This may not be as incredible as Boy, but I don’t believe it’s meant to be. Our childhood is a time separated from adulthood, and should retain a special magic free of weighty responsibility. Oh! And you don’t need me to point out the obvious metaphor in “Going Solo” as it pertains to both flight and life, right? Good, I knew you caught that.
Posted by Casey Hampton.